Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta

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August 6th 2008
Published: August 6th 2008
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weasel coffeeweasel coffeeweasel coffee

comes out the rear ends of the weasels, then sorted and sold..apparently a delicacy..and very cheap in Vietnam!
I was looking for a place to go on holiday for 10 days ish, and a few months ago decided on Vietnam, specifically, to be based around Ho Chi Minh as I’d be able to stay for free in an empty flat of my mum’s ex-colleague who lives there but who’d be away.

As I know myself well enough to realise I wouldn’t want to travel on my own (get bored with my own company after a while!) my mum was up for coming too, so we were all set. About 6 weeks ago though a friend of mine, Tamsyn, decided to make the trip to visit me here in Bangladesh and then join us on our brief trip to Vietnam with a couple of days in Bangkok on the way back. So 1 became 2…became 3!

We arrived in the evening and there was the usual chaos of people trying to find a taxi outside the airport, but a kindly ‘helper’ I guess one of the airport staff bundled us into a van taxi and with a few words (‘foo me hung’, where we were to stay) we were off. On first appearance it reminded me a lot
pho (rice noodle soup)pho (rice noodle soup)pho (rice noodle soup)

yummy..according to me anyway. Not for a first date as you tend to slop everywhere (ok maybe just me then)
of my last hometown before Dhaka - Chengdu, China - as it was/is flat, seemingly millions of motorbikes, neon lights from surrounding buildings and Chinese characters also on various structures as we passed by. It took nearly an hour to find the right place as it was dark, and the neighbourhood we seemed to be in was really quiet and not very well-lit. However after a few circles of the block our driver found the right apartment block and after entering the wrong part of it (!) we eventually turned the key and stumbled into the flat.

After several hours travelling (though no jet lag, HCMC is only one hour’s difference from Dhaka luckily) we were suitably hungry so in the rain found a Singapore little eatery where we ordered the stereotypical foreigners abroad meal of fried rice, lemon chicken and a few smoothies for good measures. Throughout our stay in HCMC and Bangkok I got as many strawberry smoothies as possible as you don’t get strawberries in Dhaka, and how I miss them!

The Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam says about HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City if you haven’t figured that out) ‘stick around this complicated city long enough and you may find yourself smitten with it’. Hmm. Not sure if I quiiiittte agree with that. I understand that surely every place is more understood by the average foreigner if that foreigner became a resident there instead of just a visitor, but I’m not sure I would recommend HCMC as a destination if that was the only destination you were going to. Due the bombing during the Vietnam War or not, I don’t know, but there’s no real old/ancient stuff which I always like about cities, it didn’t seem to strike me with its personality as it were, which every memorable city seems to have. Anyhow, I’m not knocking it as a place to visit for a few days but I would only use it as a base to visit other places, as we did. However it was nice to wander around the tourist areas, seeing beautiful lacquer work, competing for different tour guides’ attention, having an overpriced iced coffee in Highland Coffee (like a Starbucks) and simply trying to survive crossing the road. Crossing roads in Chengdu and in China in general was always a bit of a mission but at least there they have separate lanes for cyclists so it’s clearer set out, whereas HCMC you have motorcycles, rickshaws and cars coming at you from all directions. The roads are so wide and traffic moves pretty quickly unlike in Dhaka so I found it much harder to cross!

HCMC is apparently also a great place to eat, better than Hanoi (again, according to the ‘wisdom’ of the Lonely Planet 😉). Unfortunately travelling with my mum and a friend, who I have to say in my opinion tended to want to stick with what she knew rather than try Vietnamese food, resulted in us eating rather a lot of non-Vietnamese food. I realise it’s quite sweet yet bland a lot of the time, but if I’m in a country, I want to eat their food 99.9% of the time. Otherwise you miss a large part of the point of leaving your home country at all. Anyhow, I guess travelling with others you have to compromise. At least we tried pho, rice-noodle soup. The noodles come in a broth-kind of soup with herbs and veg. Not dissimilar to the noodle bowls I had in Chengdu when I lived there but different tasting broth. Anyway, it was

..at the Jade Pagoda, HCMC
yummy but surprisingly filling.

One thing I didn't try was weasel coffee. I'd heard about it as a delicacy in coffee, something like weasels eat the coffee beans, it comes out their other end, is sorted and then sold on. Mmmm. There was lots of it in one of the big markets in HCMC. So, if you're a coffee fan, why not try it?!

I won’t spend time on describing our days in HCMC because as you may have gathered, the city, to me, wasn’t that thrilling or indeed conquerable in the few days we were there. Maybe if I’d had more time…anyway moving on to the first day trip we did outside of HCMC…

After an apparently quite disastrous city tour Tamsyn and my mum did one day in HCMC (I had a tummy bug), we referred to the trusty guide book once again to try and find a better tour operator. For example the one we booked with (even though I ended up dropping out due to said bug) promised lunch, yet when the time arrived, the guide said the company would provide $1 U.S. worth of lunch, the rest everyone would have to cover
me on the boat, Mekong Deltame on the boat, Mekong Deltame on the boat, Mekong Delta

...sipping coconut water/juice
themselves. Bit of a rip off! Anyhow so I finally found a good reference to a company called Sinh Balo so decided to check them out (down a quiet side street off the main tourist street, Pham Ngu Lao).

The rep at the office was really helpful, honest and with good English. We booked a day trip (around $40 U.S. each) to the Cu Chi Tunnels combined with a visit to the Cao Dai Great Temple as they weren’t too far from each other. We also booked a 3-day trip to the Mekong Delta (around $200 U.S. each) starting the following day.

At around 9am a Sinh Balo mini-van complete with guide (called Nguyen Manh Hai if you’re interested) turned up outside our apartment block where we were waiting, we set off, and a couple of hours drive later arrived at Cao Dai. It’s worth mentioning that throughout our trip in Vietnam, the roads were among the worst, if not the worst, I’ve ever travelled on, and my mum agrees. Bear in mind I spent many weekends travelling in a van on an un-tarmac-ed ‘road’ to Eton Beach, swerving pot holes etc when I lived in the South
elephant ear fishelephant ear fishelephant ear fish

common in the Delta
Pacific which I thought was surely the bumpiest road I’d ever been on, but the Vietnamese roads win. Somehow even though on the surface they look tarmac-ed over, you hit bumps every couple of seconds and your head almost bumps the ceiling of the vehicle you are in (even though I am only 5”4!). I had to pop a few headache pills along the way such was the bumping. Anyway, so just a word of warning - be prepared for a bumpy ride as far as the roads are concerned in Vietnam.

The Cao Dai Holy See was founded in 1926 and the religion the Daists follow is one of the, if not the, most recently formed religions in the world. Don’t ask me about the specifics though! There were lots of tourists like us (tho I hate the word ‘tourist’) at the temple, which is massive and decorated in extraordinary bright colours, as you’ll see by the photos. Adding to that is the colours of the robes different believers wear during the 4 daily/nightly services, one of which we saw, at noon. I’ve travelled around a bit I must say, and this temple was unlike anything I’ve ever seen! It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

About an hour or so from Cao Dai are the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of tunnels used during the war by the Viet Cong. You can go inside the tunnels but it’s flabbergasting to see a) how long and extensive they are b) how narrow they are, width and length c) how people lived in there for so long d) how they clearly out-witted the Americans. The entrances to the tunnels are about 60cm wide at the most, some looking no wider than a 30cm ruler that a lot of people use at school. Inside the tunnels I found it easiest to crawl on my hands and knees to make my way from an entrance down into the ground, then back up again as otherwise you had to bend double. It was pitch dark in there was well so had to take a torch and follow the extremely fast-moving guide! Along the way above ground we saw a number of ingenious traps the Viet Cong made for the Americans, all horrible and painful looking, all involving spikes. If you’re claustrophobic, I wouldn’t go down the tunnels.
making rice papermaking rice papermaking rice paper

..they get paid next to nothing, and it's hot work. The rice paper is used to e.g. be wrapped around nems (spring rolls)

It wasn’t particularly busy so I guess we were lucky that day. It was really interesting to see this large network of tunnels, traps and general landscape that helped the Viet Cong maintain the upper hand. Another highlight of my trip. Our guide was also really good, enthusiastic even though he must have done this hundreds of time, helpful and with lots of information and answers, which is what you need in a guide!

The next day at 8am we again met the mini-van outside the apartment block and had a pretty full-on day of driving before we hit the Mekong Delta. I can’t remember the exact itinerary in order, so I’ll just mention things as they come to me. The first day involved a lot of driving, about 6 hours altogether, so be prepared for that. The last day involves slightly less as you end up close to HCMC on the way back, around 2-3 hours drive.

The Mekong Delta consists of obviously large water ways, the river splitting off in hundreds of different directions like alleyways, with bustling bits of river life on the land around and between it as well as the busy floating markets
nice stinky fishnice stinky fishnice stinky fish

..at a market near the Delta
on the river itself. After a few hours drive as I said, we clambered onto a long river boat and had our first glimpse of life on the Delta.

Here I have to mention the friendliness of the Vietnamese people we encountered. All along the way especially on the 3-day trip we were greeted by scores of waving, shouting children and adults young and old alike, racing our boat (or trying to) from their shore; waving from the boats they were on; from inside their houses and backyards; from little tea-houses - everywhere. Seeing as we were white and could have been Americans and as the war wasn’t that long ago, I was amazed by the reception by the Vietnamese people of all ages, just smiling and waving and shouting with excitement. Especially as they must see this every day as the Mekong was pretty packed with tourist boats (didn’t spoil our trip though).

The first night there was a bit of a hiccup as my friend hadn’t brought her passport, not that we were told to, I just happened to have mine. Turns out this particular hotel, as we had reached the border with Cambodia, demanded a
woman making incense stickswoman making incense stickswoman making incense sticks

..one of the few places left that make them by hand. She only gets paid $1 U.S. a day
passport to stay the night. She didn’t have it. So..we were decanted by the guide to a guest house down the road which was fine (shower, loo, big beds, a/c) except that it was very noisy and at 5am we were woken by loudspeakers shouting gibberish that turned out to be the government’s daily 5am wakeup call to small towns in Vietnam. Lucky us! So, wasn’t best pleased to pay for a hotel that we didn’t stay in and to have such little sleep, but aah, what can you do..and I’ve stayed in a hell of a lot worse!

As we were very near the Cambodian border, as part of the trip we climbed to the top of nearby Sam Mountain to see the border itself. I say climbed - I didn’t! - my thighs were still aching from the visit to the tunnels and after living in flat cities for 2 years, I am fit as a swimmer but not as a walker! - so I caught the bus up! Ha. Was a bit of a cloudy view but quite cool to see the border. I used energy anyhow on the steep descent down, lots and lots and lots of steps…my calves still ache now!

The best part of the trip I think was simply being on the river. We saw a large floating market where people in the traditional triangular-shaped hats tried to get us to buy cold cans of Coke; people bartering over fruit; kids snoozing under the boat canopy; seeing hundreds of herons settling in treetops; sipping coconut juice in the breeze; and waving to all the people waving to us. If you go, you’ll love it.

If you are in the south or thinking of doing a trip to HCMC and around, I recommend doing the Mekong Delta. Maybe in Hanoi you’d have more to do, or maybe when you get to HCMC you’ll disagree with me and think HCMC is enough to tackle without going anywhere else, but…this might give you a few ideas. I’d definitely go to Vietnam again…8 days was not enough!


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